It doesn’t matter how you spin it, this has not been a good couple of weeks for new Washington football coach Kalen DeBoer and the Husky program.
The latest blow came Wednesday with a report that one of DeBoer’s first prized recruits, four-star wide receiver Germie Bernard, has been granted a release from the national letter of intent he filed less than three weeks ago. Bernard was the jewel in a small and lowly ranked recruiting class. According to 247Sports, there’s a good chance Bernard will sign with Michigan State — the latest and probably most damaging in a series of recent defections from the Huskies that have alarmed fans.
That doesn’t mean DeBoer is doomed to failure or anything like that. He’s a mere five weeks into the job and still has plenty of time to institute the vision he eloquently laid out at his introductory news conference Nov. 30.
Many of the blows DeBoer is experiencing are part of the normal reshuffling that happens when a new coach and staff take over. Some of it is fallout from some of the bridges burned by the man he replaced, Jimmy Lake. Bernard’s defection is directly related to that of receivers coach Junior Adams, who was heavily involved in Bernard’s recruitment before abruptly leaving Montlake this week to take a job at Oregon.
And much of it is simply part of the new normal in college football. Players have more freedom of movement than ever before. As many predicted, the NCAA transfer portal — with immediate eligibility at a player’s new home — has led to a form of de facto free agency that is fundamentally changing the dynamics of the sport.
In the big picture, this is a good thing and long overdue. Accompanied by the advent of Name, Image and Likeness, players are finally getting some empowerment over their athletic careers after decades of merely being pawns in a billion-dollar industry.
But when you’re a devotee of a particular team, those departures are downright painful. Bernard joins wide receivers Terrell Bynum and Sawyer Racanelli, tight end Mark Redman, outside linebacker Cooper McDonald, outside linebacker Laiatu Latu and defensive tackle Sam Taimani in the transfer portal. Bynum landed at USC, Redman and McDonald at San Diego State and Latu at UCLA despite having his Husky career ended last year by virtue of a medical retirement. Taimani hasn’t announced his destination but gave a broad clue last week when he posted a picture of himself in an Oregon Ducks uniform.
If you look at the 247 transfer portal website, you’ll find that the number of Huskies listed is commensurate with, or maybe even slightly below, the norm in college football. And they have a couple players coming their way via the portal, most notably former Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr., with the possibility of adding more later.
But that doesn’t minimize the fact that many of the outgoing names are ones that could have really helped DeBoer and the Huskies in 2022. The fact that at least three (plus two coaches, Adams and Cal-bound defensive-backs coach Terrence Brown) are going to conference rivals hurts even more. And there’s no guarantee that the list won’t grow after spring practice when the players still on hand will have had a better chance to assess DeBoer, his staff and his regimen.
At his introductory news conference, DeBoer expressed confidence in his ability to impart to players that the University of Washington is a place they should want to be. Now he needs to hope that feeling starts to take root.
“Most importantly, it’s going to be about the relationships and them really truly knowing that we care about them,” DeBoer said that day. “Not just now, but we care about their future.”
Those transfers are on top of key Husky players with remaining eligibility who are leaving for the draft: Bookie Radley-Hiles, Trent McDuffie, Cade Otton, Jaxson Kirkland and, just announced via social media on Wednesday evening, Kyler Gordon.
Meanwhile, former All-American Zion Tupuola-Fetui has yet to announce whether he’ll be back for his fifth season with the Huskies. DeBoer needs to put his recruiting A-game on retaining ZTF. If he stays, it would be a psychological boost for everyone — not to mention a boon for the Husky pass rush.
Yet it’s hard for me to work up any enmity toward the players who are leaving, when in many cases they watch the coaches who recruited them take off with impunity. That’s obviously the case with coaches such as Lincoln Riley, Brian Kelly and, well, DeBoer, who left their former players high and dry in pursuit of a better opportunity. Why shouldn’t the players themselves have the same opportunity?
But the Adams situation drives home the point even more forcefully. It was only a few weeks ago that he appeared to have been one of the few holdovers from Lake’s staff to be kept by DeBoer. Not only was Adams heavily involved in the recruitment of Bernard and fellow wide receiver Denzel Boston from Puyallup’s Emerald Ridge High School, but Bernard cited Adams as the main reason he chose the Huskies over numerous other high-powered schools that pursued him.
If Adams suddenly takes off for Eugene, who can blame Bernard for leaving, too? The question of why Adams chose to leave remains a mystery, but it puts considerable pressure on DeBoer’s choice of a replacement as receivers coach. It needs to be someone the Husky wide receivers can rally around. It’s noteworthy that sophomore Jalen McMillan, UW’s leader in receiving yardage last year, deleted all mention of UW from his social-media profiles after word of Adams’ departure leaked.
McMillan, Boston and everyone else in that receivers room will be watching closely to see who DeBoer finds to lead them. Yes, the Huskies’ new head coach can survive the defections that have already taken place. But the last thing he needs is more of them.